Category Archives: Britannia

Neologism

I like a good neologism as much as the next guy. Oxford English Dictionaries recently released a covey of new words added to the famed lexicon. Most of them, it seemed to me, had to do with dangers of technology, like “drunk text” and such fare. Still, increasing vocabulary is one of those rare joys in life that is continues to be free, so I indulge. A friend sent me a BBC story about another new word: champing. Well, my spell-check recognizes that one so maybe it’s not new. In any case, this champing is derived from two words “church” and “camping.” Some locations with medieval churches—which kind of rules out anything on these shores—are now opening them up as camping spots, thus church-camping. The article asks what it’s like to stay overnight in such a place.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, medieval churches were hard to find, but I spent more than one night sleeping in sacred spaces. It’s an uncanny experience. In what may have been more innocent days, our United Methodist Church allowed youth group sleepovers, as long as there were counselors present. (Ever naive, I only learned later that there were ways around such obvious strictures.) On a Friday night, then, we could occasionally gather with our sleeping bags and slumber under the sanctuary. For theological reasons we couldn’t sleep in the sanctuary itself (although that couldn’t be prevented on the occasional very long sermon) but we could go in. Churches are scary at night with the lights out. We may give lip service to holy ground, but large, cavernous spaces suggest so much by absence and implication that it would take a stout soul indeed to sleep there.

Looks okay from the outside.

Sleeping in sanctuaries in ancient times was an acceptable practice. In fact, there’s a name for doing so: incubation rituals. A person who slept in a sacred place believed any dreams had that night were a message from God. Knowing the dreams I tend to have, I do wonder. Once, at the United Methodist camp called Jumonville—famous for its large white, 60-foot, metal cross visible in three states—we counselors (still naive) had our charges sleep outdoors at the foot of the sigil on the bare top of the mountain. In the morning my champers gleefully informed me that I’d been praying in my sleep. “You kept saying ‘Amen. Amen,’” they told me. Alas, I don’t remember the dreams of that night. Perhaps when I find a medieval church on my journeys I’ll be brave enough to try an incubation ritual once again. This time I’ll take a tape recorder.

Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.

Theoretically Speaking

lit-theory-vsiI’ve been brushing up on my literary theory. All writing tends to get classified as fact or fiction, and we don’t stop to think, generally, about what “literature” is. Those of us who write fiction and non know that a well-placed hyperbole might throw us from one camp into the other. Such is the power of rhetoric. So it was that I found myself reading Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Witty and insightful, Culler acknowledges the elephant in the room for many of us—theory, in a literary context, is often impenetrable. I’ve often wondered what one had to do to be considered a theorist, and this little book actually addresses that. Nobody has time to read all the theorists, though, and come up with their own creative things to say. Chose your poison.

The Bible, of course, is literature. That’s one reason I was reading Culler. I found one of his assertions immediately applicable: people in nineteenth-century England saw literature as a unifying principle. The British Empire encompassed the world, and to make diverse peoples a part of it, literature might be used, they thought, to do the trick. Culler suggests that it might have been a substitute for religion, which, he notes, was no longer holding society together. This gave me pause. Religion—at least official religion—began as social glue. The earliest recorded religions were state sponsored and served to cast the monarch in the role of the special appointee of the gods. There’s no arguing with that, right? Elaborate, expensive temples were erected. Financed by tax-payers’ dollars. This worked fine since priests declared the rule of the king as sanctioned by the gods. Nations warring against each other were thought of as rival gods fighting.

When science began to take the universe literally, religion lost its stickiness. How do you hold a society together when the gods no longer exist? You see, scientists didn’t think out the whole picture in advance. Scientists, like most academics, work in silos (that’s a metaphor). The discovery of a scientific truth can dissolve a social epoxy quite efficiently. Recognizing the slippage in the British Empire, theorists (I suppose that’s who noted such things) considered literature the great uniting force of a diverse people. We’re kind of facing that same dilemma today as literature is becoming, for many, as irrelevant as religion was a century-and-a-half ago. At the same time, people don’t understand science well enough to assess it for themselves. What are we supposed to do? Is there a theorist in the house?

The Morning After

dickens_gurney_head

Quite apart from seeing a live performance of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens has been on my mind a bit this Christmas season. I suppose that’s not surprising since it has been suggested that Dickens “invented” the modern Christmas, but it is really, I think, because of how the wider world seems to be spinning backwards. The poor have always been a personal concern of mine. I grew up poor and I know how much suffering it entails. My case was a rather mild poverty—we were never out on the street, and we didn’t actually go hungry. We had nothing in the way of luxuries, though, and I could see the possibilities even as I could see the sky where the boards on the roof were pulling apart. It wouldn’t have taken much for us to have been cast out in a cold Pennsylvania winter. Others have it much worse.

On my daily walks to work, I see the homeless. Some sleep in cardboard boxes, some in tents. Others are out under the stars. One morning I walked by a particularly creepy and sad sight of a person sitting, shrouded in a blanket over his or her head, on a subway vent to catch some of the ambient heat. I know that I don’t have the means to buy each one a meal. Their number has been going up, not down. And I think of Bob Cratchit, threatened and bullied by Ebenezer Scrooge. He will lose his job if he’s not in early today, the day after Christmas. Because of his change of heart, Scrooge buys his clerk a pot of “smoking bishop.” And herein lies the only possible cheer.

My wife got me started on Dickens. She also sent me a story from NPR on smoking bishop. It seems, according to the story by Anne Bramley, that British Protestants delighted in making fun of church offices by naming their tipples after titles. Churchmen (and they were men) were largely exempt from being poor and, according to historians, often supported the Poor Laws that made the fate of the poverty-stricken even worse. In a kind of perverse revenge against privilege, drinks were named after various ecclesiastical offices. There’s little that the poor can do, except to try to find the scant humor in a situation where no one has the reach of a Charles Dickens anymore. Ebenezer, unlike Bob, is a biblical name. It means “stone of help.” In these chilly days dare we hope that help may come, even from a stone?

What You Eat

The future of Sleepy Hollow is uncertain. The successful FOX television program has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous scheduling over the past year and speculation abounds that the current fourth season may be its last. It has been, in my experience anyway, one of the most literate supernatural horror shows ever. Books and reading abound and an interracial team fights evil week after week. Having done some research on the first season of the program, I continue to be surprised just how detailed the homework of the writers is. My wife sent me a story from Atlas Obscura on the “sin eater.” This is a term, I readily confess, that I never heard before the introduction of Henry Parrish to Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod Crane, guilty over the death of a freed African American freedom fighter, ingests poison to kill himself and severe his connection to the Headless Horseman. Abbie Mills, believing there is another way, locates the sin eater.

The idea is fairly simple, if unorthodox. A sin eater can literally devour the sins of another. In Sleepy Hollow this comes at a considerable cost, but the article by Natalie Zarrelli demonstrates that this too reflects research on the subject. There were, it turns out, sin eaters in the early modern British Isles. Often a poor person with no other options, a sin eater would consume bread placed on the chest of the deceased, incorporating, in an almost Christ-like way, the sins of the recently passed. The dead could then be safely buried, forgiven, while for a pittance a poor soul could walk around with someone else’s sins in his or her body. Sounds like capitalism writ large, to me.

Watching Sleepy Hollow I had assumed this idea was invented for the show. Like so many details, however, it turns out that some digging had brought an obscure historical practice to the surface. Sin eating, as the article makes clear, was never sanctioned by the church. People have often worried that official religion might not deliver the salvation it so readily promised, bound up with rules and rites as it was. Here was a sacrament of the people. Bread could be visibly consumed and symbolically, or literally, sin with it. The sin eater was paid, making this a legal transaction. Although sin eating is thought to have died out, it seems that with the recent, high-level resurgence of evil-doing, perhaps it is a practice that should be recalled. In many ways Sleepy Hollow has been ahead of the times since the beginning.

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Identity Crisis

womaninwhiteSince at least my middle school days I have been in search of the great Gothic novel. I can’t claim to have found it just yet, but I’ve read many notable samples along the way. Somehow Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White remained completely unknown to me until earlier this year. The title was evocative enough to make me pick it up, daunting though its 600 pages might be. Like many novels of its period it was serialized, which likely accounts for its length. Honestly, it took a while to get into it fully. Once ensconced, however, it kept me reading for over a month. (I took some breaks for work and sleep.) I wouldn’t say it was my ideal of the great Gothic novel, but the character of Count Fosco is amazingly drawn and seriously compelling. As the huge man lets mice run over his massive body and treats birds with conscientious gentleness, he is plotting ruin to his fellow human beings to benefit himself. He is an accomplished egotist.

What makes the novel so profound to me is the question of identity. One of the characters in the novel, the eponymous woman in white, has a double in the love interest of the protagonist. Doubles are common in Gothic tales, but in this instance when the woman dies and others believe her double to be her the question of identity is raised. Who am I, really? In the day before DNA evidence, it was impressively difficult to prove you were who you said you were, if your appearance was altered. Emaciated, abused, and drugged, Laura doesn’t look like herself and even her own uncle doesn’t recognize her. In the end her identity is established by legal testimony alone, without benefit of any biological proof.

Identity has been on my mind lately. Especially on a national scale. Brexit and Trump were both movements fueled by distrust and distorted notions of national identity. In short, Britain and the United States, so the reasoning goes, should belong to white men. As Monty Burns famously said, “Well, for once the rich white man is in control!” I personally like a little color in my field of view. I value deeply those I’ve met whose experiences and skin tones don’t match my own pallor. I want our national identity to include more than just fifty shades of white where women are objects and men are some kind of noble studs. Back when I started to read this novel I had a grip on that view of reality. Now that I’ve finally finished it, I wonder who we really are.

Ritual Rent

Rituals frequently outlive their purposes. Some skeptics may claim that rituals—particularly of the religious sort—really don’t mean anything at all, but in fact they do. Rituals have logical origins, or at least that seemed logical at the time. Atlas Obscura ran a piece by Sarah Laskow on “London Is Still Paying Rent to the Queen on a Property Leased in 1211.” Such a story invites commentary on many levels. One is that the items payed in rent—6 horseshoes, an axe, a knife, and 61 nails—don’t seem to be commodities her royal highness actually needs, or could even make use of. Still, it’s easy to see how this ritual rent has a logical origin. Axes, knives, nails, and shoes for six-legged horses were all quite practical in the Middle Ages, one assumes. They won’t help you get onto the internet any faster, though, so one wonders how they might be of use now.

Another question a story like this raises is that of government itself. Rulers both in monarchies and democracies have a habit of skimming off the top. It’s been some time since we’ve had a president who purchased his own loaf of bread or could even guess how much it costs the rest of us to do so. In Britain the question may be even more salient—the royal family is among the richest in the world and yet they still take an axe, a knife, horseshoes, and nails for a property that, as the article states, nobody even knows where is? I guess it’s the price we pay for feeling safe under the watchful eye of those who already have too much. The property itself may be a legal fiction, but the payment is real enough.

Wonder what the rent on this place is?

Wonder what the rent on this place is?

There are those who declare rituals empty, and therefore meaningless. To me that seems a hasty judgment. Our rituals reflect what we’ve historically believed. Those beliefs may have changed over the years, while the rituals continued in their own way. But they are reminders. Reminders of something once held to be significant enough to take time and resources in order to ensure the smooth running of—in the case of religious rituals—the universe itself. On the smaller scale, however, our secular rituals contribute to a system that always has favored the rich. It likely always will. You see, rituals are not easily broken. And even if all they can extract are items of little practical use, those who already have will be glad to accept even more. This is the reality behind rituals and rites.